Nabokov’s Jewish Family
A friendship with an ambassador reveals the great writer’s surprising relationship with Israel
As Levavi tells it, the whole affair never progressed as far as making concrete plans for the visit, though in one of his first letters Nabokov did set down the basic outline of the proposed trip: “I would be happy to give one or two readings of my works, I would enjoy visiting museums, libraries, and universities, and I would like to take advantage of this wonderful occasion to do some butterfly hunting.”
Meanwhile, the geopolitical situation in the Near East at the beginning of the 1970s did not bode particularly well for butterfly hunting. In early October 1973, Egypt allied with Syria in an attempt to win back the territory lost in the Six Day War. The Soviet army was providing the allies with the latest military technologies, and Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were financing the allied army. OPEC cut off oil supplies to the United States and some other Western countries as a response to their support of Israel.
During this tense time, on Oct. 9, 1973, Nabokov sent a check to Levavi in support of the Israeli defense army for what would later become known as the Yom Kippur War. The accompanying note, reproduced in Selected Letters, contained the following sentence with a phrase that would have been worthy of becoming a political neologism: “I would like to make a small contribution to Israel’s defense against the Arabolshevist aggression.” Nabokov asked the recipient to forward the check at his own discretion: “May I beg you to forward the enclosed check. I am leaving the name in blank because I don’t know to what organization exactly it should go.”
This gesture was yet another proof of what Nabokov had earlier admitted in an unpublished typescript of his interview with Nurit Beretzky, then a young reporter for the leading Israeli newspaper Maariv, who asked about Nabokov’s opinion of the current situation in the Middle East: “I can only reply to your question about the Near East in a very amateur way: I fervently favor total friendship between America and Israel and am emotionally inclined to take Israel’s side in all political matters.”
What might have attracted Nabokov to Levavi, a younger man engaged in a completely different field of endeavor? One gets the impression that a number of factors played a role. First among these was a common general interest in world literature. It also helped that Levavi’s profession was the traditional Nabokov family career: The author’s father and grandfather had been in government service and politics at the highest levels, and his uncle Konstantin had served on a number of diplomatic missions to London at a time somewhat like Levavi’s, during that period when, to use the words of Konstantin from his 1921 memoirs, “elemental events that were unleashed as a result of the European War … began to strike cruel blows at the national dignity of Russia.” The two men shared an equal disgust for both fascism and communism: When he visited Soviet Russia, it was with the eyes of a foreigner that Levavi saw the regime and the scale of the Bolshevik terror. In addition, Levavi had visited Leningrad/Petersburg, the city where Nabokov grew up. The ambassador told a Swiss acquaintance that, despite the new name and the still visible effects of the three-year blockade and bombardment in World War II, Leningrad in 1949 remained a city of unrivaled beauty.
I do not wish to exaggerate: The relationship of the ambassador and the would-be guest of his country never ventured outside the bounds of close acquaintanceship. But there is reason to believe that it subtly crossed over into something more than the reverence of typical diplomatic good manners. If nothing else, there is lasting proof of it, found in the wonderful butterflies on Levavi’s copies of Nabokov’s books, drawn especially for the diplomat. And though no one knows whether Russian literature would have benefited from any “Jerusalem prose” that might have come from Nabokov’s pen had his wish to visit Israel been fulfilled, the story of his life cannot be told without this unrealized shadow of a possibility.
As for Levavi, after he retired he composed philosophical treatises and sometimes taught university courses on a voluntary basis. He died in 2009—nine years after our meeting in Jerusalem—at the age of 97.
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